This is entry number 87, first published on 18 January 2010, of a blog on the implementation of the Planning Act 2008. Click here for a link to the whole blog.

Today's entry looks at the suggestion that the proposed Thames Tideway Tunnel project will be decided under the Planning Act.

Thames Water, responsible for water and sewerage in the capital, is proposing to reduce the number of sewage outflows into the Thames by creating a new sewer running parallel to and beneath the river. It will be about 32km long and will run from a point yet to be decided in west London to Beckton in east London. Thames Water's web page about the project is here.

On the face of it, this is not a project that falls within any of the sixteen categories of 'nationally significant infrastructure project' defined in the Planning Act 2008 that would be referred to the new Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) for consideration, and if a National Policy Statement (NPS) is in place, decision.

The nearest type of project that is covered is a 'waste water treatment plant' that is capable of treating the, ahem, output from more than 500,000 people (or an extension to an existing plant of that size). Given that this project is a tunnel rather than a treatment plant, it is not covered.

The councils along the Thames believe, however, that the government will use its powers under the Act for the first time to 'upgrade' this project to come within it. The government can do this if it thinks that a project in one of the fields of energy, transport, water, waste water (check) or waste is not covered by the Act thresholds but is of national significance. Since people in London think that everything that happens there is of national significance, that should be a fairly easy hurdle. Seriously, though, the government may not be too gung ho in upgrading projects, as it will look as though they got the project types or thresholds wrong, but this project could be one-off enough to be an exception.

Some of the councils along the Thames are not very happy about this, however, as the project would have consisted of a series of planning applications to them, plus some other consents. Although if they turned them down, there would likely be a planning appeal, which would not be too different from an IPC application. Here is a story from Hammersmith and Fulham's website: Kensington and Chelsea are reportedly unhappy too, according to Planning magazine.

Fears that the IPC will decide the application may be unfounded, however. Either the proposed Waste Water NPS will not cover it (why should it? it is not a project normally covered by the Act), or if it does, it is not expected to come into force until next year (2011). Unless it should ever be covered by a finalised NPS, then the application goes back to the government for decision once the IPC has reported on the evidence. Thames Water say that construction is due to begin in 2012.

It is also wrong to say, in legal terms at least, that the local authorities' views will be ignored. The only document that the Act specifically requires the IPC or the government to take into account when reaching a decision is a 'Local Impact Report' produced by any local authority whose area contains the project or any of their neighbours. Thus it must be taken into account, although of course the councils' concern is that it will be 'had regard to' but not followed.

This issue does raise the interesting prospect that in other situations the government might upgrade a project that would eventually have gone before the IPC, but before it was due to do so